So you’re dreaming about building out your van, huh? This is one of the most exciting phases, but it also sucks because you’re usually saving up money, waiting for a remote work opportunity, or even trying to find the right van for the right price.
While you’re waiting, you’re likely doing your research. Good for you! Equipping yourself with knowledge will help set expectations and build a strong foundation for when you’re ready to start building. I spent a lot of time in the dreaming and scheming phase. I learned a lot about what not to do, but I still made mistakes in my van build. And the biggest dose of reality you’ll need to accept? You will too!
I’m sharing five van build mistakes I made so that you can avoid these in your build. Be prepared to make your own unique mistakes. The important part is getting out there and enjoying life on the road.
Van Build Mistake #1: The Cabinet Hardware Is A Hazard
When you move into a new space, there will be an adjustment period! You’ll bump, scrape, and knock into things as your body learns the dimensions. Unfortunately, I’ve been bumping, scraping, and knocking into these sharp, hard-edge cabinet pulls. Look at these things!
While I thought they looked really cool on display at the hardware store, they’re not the most practical choice for a small, high-traffic space. I’m still getting bruises and scrapes and it’s just not worth it.
Opt for hardware that’s not hard! There are a lot of attractive options like leather straps, rope, flat-mounted pull-rings, or even just open holes that you use to pull open the drawer or door.
Van Build Mistake #2: My DIY Window Covers Suck
If you can build out a van, surely DIY window covers won’t be that hard, right? That’s what I thought! I’m pretty handy with a sewing machine and I had plenty of Reflectix leftover from the insulation. DIY curtains, coming right up!
My problem was, I wasn’t able to make something perfectly sophisticated to suit my needs, so I’m left wanting. For example, the large sliding door window curtain is just a little too small so I had to add an extra pocket for the magnet. It doesn’t fit inside the window so when I open the sliding door, it gets folded in and usually falls off.
With the other curtains, I didn’t use enough magnets so there are small gaps around the edges. During a particularly windy day, I opened the back door while stopped at a gas station. The wind took off with one of my sad window covers and I didn’t notice it until that evening when I was getting ready for bed.
My window covers don’t fold up nicely like some of the professional ones so if I want full sun, I have to stash them in the cab or behind my wall panel. Sure, it works but it’s not ideal.
Just splurge and buy professional window covers! Unless you’re a real DIY pro, yours will likely show their mistakes quickly too. There are a lot of projects in the van that can handle an amateur job, but for something you’ll be using every day for privacy, stealth, and comfort, just go with the pros.
Van Build Mistake #3: I Installed The Light Dimmer Switch Upside Down
I’m very proud to say I did all of the electrical work in the van. It was challenging but rewarding, especially when I was able to turn the lights on for the first time. I have LED puck lights installed in the ceiling, connected to a dimmer switch. After all that hard work, I turned on the lights for the first time, pushed the dimmer slide up, and the lights dimmed. Hmm. That’s odd. Usually, you would expect the lights to get brighter when the slide is moved up. That’s when I realized I installed it upside down!
Now, I know what you’re going to say, “just unscrew it and flip it over!” But I left it how it is because I like the mistake. It’s a little van quirk that reminds me that this whole thing is built by hand to get out there and explore–not something that has to meet Instagram levels of perfection. It doesn’t pose a safety risk and it’s still easy to use, so I left it!
Pay close attention to detail when installing switches!
Van Build Mistake #4: I Cheaped Out On The Drawer Slides For The Fridge
I chose a top-loading, chest-style 12v fridge for a few reasons. One, it’s more energy-efficient because when opened, the cool air stays inside the fridge better compared to the classic upright fridge. Second, it’s typically a higher-capacity option, and thirdly, I like the look in the campervan kitchen with the fridge neatly tucked away behind cabinet doors.
However, to gain access to the fridge, I had to install extra-strong drawer slides to pull the fridge out and open the lid. Should be easy, right? The mistake I made was choosing a cheap Amazon brand for the slides, thinking they would suffice.
Now, only two months into my adventures, one side is already unstable and will sometimes come off the tracks if I pull the fridge out too far. When loaded up, the fridge is very heavy so it can be challenging to get it back on the tracks. Because of this, I hesitate the pull it out too far which makes it hard to fully open the lid to get to the food. I’ll be replacing these tracks later on down the road.
Look for a brand with a strong warranty that can back their product claims. This is an area of the build where you won’t want to cheap out. This product is used multiple times a day and has to withstand heavy loads. Buy something that can hold its weight.
Van Build Mistake #5: None Of My Windows Open For Extra Airflow And Ventilation
I have a classic T1N Sprinter van. Like most cargo vans, the windows in the back do not open. I figured that wouldn’t be an issue but now that I’ve been in areas where it was just a little too warm, I wish I would have had a screened-in window to slide open to just a little bit more airflow.
I have two fans installed. One is a MaxxAir roof vent fan, the other is a wall-mounted, three-speed Sirocco fan. They work well together to pull air in for circulation and ventilation, but it works best if there’s an open source for the air to come in or out. It’s easy when I’m boondocking to have the sliding door open or cracked, but those nights in a Walmart parking lot can be tough when there’s no fresh air source in the back.
There are a ton of brands out there that make quality windows just for this purpose. Some pop out while others slide open. The installation process can be a little intimidating because you’ll need to cut a hole in your van, but you’re brave!
Overall, I’m very satisfied with the DIY van build. I like the layout, the functionality, the storage, and most importantly–the adventures I get to have every single day because of the freedom I have on the road. Accept that mistakes are going to happen. Do your research to avoid the big ones, but the best advice I can give you is to get started and see what you create!
Bethany travels full-time with her husband, Wade, and her dog, Walter. She really enjoyed the design and creativity that went into completing their self-converted T1N Sprinter van. She travels with the seasons, preferring to stay in mild climates. You can find her in Maine for the summer and in the desert for the winter. She loves to share insight into living in a van because she thoroughly enjoys the freedom to explore and the novelty she experiences every day.